Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After committing murder, two men stash the body in a trunk and then invite the victim’s loved ones round for a party…

The most striking aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is not that it’s the director’s first Technicolor film after 35 made in black and white, or the fact that the story is based on a real-life case of two young men who murdered someone as an intellectual exercise, but that the movie is in real time and is mostly presented as if it were one long unedited take – kind of like a sentence without a full stop – as the camera roves ceaselessly around a Manhattan apartment while its occupants host a dinner party with the corpse of a recent murder victim lying in a nearby chest, and also that this technique works so well you soon forget that a conventional movie would be cutting between different shots and between different rooms of the apartment rather than everything having the appearance and flow of a stage play (incidentally, the script was based on a 1929 stage production), but instead of a hindrance, this stylistic gimmick gives the film an extra level of tension – the longer the continuous shot goes on, the more vividly we fret that the crime committed by Brandon (John Dall, superbly smarmy) and Phillip (Farley Grainger, nervy and guilty) will be discovered – as well as a chance for us to appreciate what a monumental effort this movie must have been to rehearse and stage, though when you do pay attention to the craft of the filmmaking it soon becomes clear that Rope *isn’t* one long take with no edits at all because every 10 minutes or so Hitchcock needed to disguise a change of shot (the timing was dictated by how much film could fit into a 35mm camera), so in most of these instances the camera closes in on a character’s back or some other material that will black out the whole frame for a beat and allow editor William H Ziegler to subtly cut to the next section, but there are additionally a few key moments when Hitchcock simply switches conventionally to a new camera angle. These unexpected hard cuts were positioned strategically to help cinema projectionists change reels, but they have enormous dramatic weight because, of course, by the time they come along we’ve fallen into the rhythm of the film, which is fluid and real-time and dictated by actors’ performances and camera movement rather than editing, and to jolt us out of that mind-set really highlights an important line or reaction, such as when Brandon and Phillip’s old tutor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, slightly miscast but reliably watchable) first suspects that something is amiss after Phillip becomes increasingly nervous and drunk and angrily denies that he once strangled a chicken on a farm, and then we cut suddenly to a reaction shot of an intrigued Rupert, though the character’s sense of curiosity soon morphs into dread as he begins to put the clues together and work out what’s happened, and this is where the gentle façade of the film and its fun, parlour-game conceit of ‘Will they get rumbled?’ – and, of course, the entertaining gimmick of the long takes – is superseded by an extra level of suspense and we watch closely as Rupert probes and questions like a classic detective, eking out the sordid truth of what Brandon and Phillip have done, which is to say strangle an innocent man with a piece of rope and then ghoulishly invite his friend, his father, his aunt and his girlfriend round to have drinks served over his hidden corpse – all done as an ‘intellectual’ exercise, to see whether it could be done, which is about as perverted and immoral as any crime in Hitchcock’s canon (at least Norman Bates is ill; at least the killer in Dial M for Murder wants money) so when Brandon attempts to justify his action academically – arguing with Rupert and the victim’s poor, unsuspecting father that murder can be an art form if carried out by ‘superior men’ and if the victim is an ‘inferior’ – we the audience are placed in a tricky position because the usual effect of a movie such as Rope, where we see events from the bad guys’ point of view, is to turn us into accomplices and encourage us to side with the villains and hope they get away with whatever they’re doing, but here Brandon and Phillip – especially Brandon – are openly espousing fascism, so something smart happens at the midway point of the story and that’s that our sympathies and empathies switch across to Rupert (the other party guests, meanwhile, drift away and never learn what’s happened) and he acts like a detective in a mystery story and he questions Brandon and Phillip and he challenges their story and he finds the victim’s hat in the apartment and he leaves the party then returns later in order to talk to Brandon and Phillip alone and the tension in the air is immense and Rupert drops hints that he knows what they’ve done and Brandon can’t resist betraying his perverted, perhaps sexual excitement at being caught and Phillip is a broken man and Rupert walks to the chest and he opens it and he sees the body and the noise of the city outside gets louder and the neon lights across the street pulse through the windows and he finds the rope used to kill and he shoots a gun to attract attention and we hear police sirens approaching – 

Ten silhouettes out of 10

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